Associated Press

Warriors ready to start another special postseason run

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP)  — That chase for 73 wins and breaking the Chicago Bulls’ record last season generated so much scrutiny when the Golden State Warriors failed to win it all at the end.

How might have that taken a toll come playoff time? Did fatigue factor in when it mattered most?

Nah, Steve Kerr refuses to think about it that way. Stephen Curry‘s injury sure did, though. Absolutely.

The two-time reigning NBA MVP sprained the MCL in his right knee when he slipped on a wet spot just before halftime of a Game 4 win at Houston in the first round of the 2016 playoffs.

“Steph gets banged up the first game of the playoffs which affected his whole run,” Kerr said. “You can’t account for that stuff. You try your best to keep your eye on guys and to keep them fresh, but honestly Steph was pretty fresh going into last season’s postseason. So this year we’re doing what we can to make sure guys are ready to roll, but you never know what’s going to happen.”

Now, the Warriors – who at 67-15 had the NBA’s best record for a third straight year – and Trail Blazers prepare to face off in the playoffs for a second straight season after Golden State beat Portland in a five-game Western Conference semifinals last year.

Kerr rested players down the stretch as needed, he mixed Kevin Durant back in after a 19-game absence with a left knee injury.

“We’re chasing something, we’re not protecting anything this year,” Curry said. “… In theory, we’re not the hunted. Obviously, we have the best record but we’re not defending a championship. There’s really no pressure. Two years ago we were trying to climb the ladder again and now we’re in that kind of same mentality. It’s good for us to go just go in with all the confidence in the world that we’ve built up this regular season and understand that every round’s going to be different, every round’s going to be just a dogfight. We understand how important every single game is on that journey.”

The Blazers lost all four regular-season meetings but went 17-6 down the stretch.

Curry was sidelined for the first three games of that series last year before coming off the bench in a playoff game for the first time in his career in Game 4 and scoring 40 points, with an NBA record 17 in overtime of a 132-125 victory.

All of that is in the past, Durant assures.

“Last year’s over,” KD said Saturday. “Just trying to move on. We know this is a different season, a different team, just a different year. We’re not coming in saying, `Because of last year, we’re trying to get revenge or we’re trying to show everybody what we got.”‘

Here are some things to watch for leading to tipoff Sunday:

LILLARD’S HOME

Damian Lillard typically brings his best when he comes home to the East Bay to take on the Warriors, and he fully expects to win this series.

“We feel we can do it,” Lillard said. “If we don’t, we shouldn’t even go out there and lace up our shoes.”

Lillard and CJ McCollum make up one of the league’s best backcourts, one that rivals Curry and Klay Thompson.

The Blazers hope to have their big man healthy, too. Portland center Jusuf Nurkic was listed as questionable Saturday after he missed the last seven games with a non-displaced fracture in his right leg.

KD AND STEPH

Portland must pick who to try to stop, and that’s a daunting task with the Warriors’ loaded lineup.

Durant averaged 29.3 points against Portland and Curry 27.3.

KD returned from a 19-game absence with a left knee injury to play the final three regular-season games.

“The main focus is health, and KD getting his legs back and relatively healthy, so that’s a good start for him,” key backup David West said.

LOPSIDED LOSSES

The Blazers would prefer to forget that 135-90 debacle of a defeat at Oracle on Dec. 17 – the largest Warriors’ margin of victory in the rivalry.

Golden State has won the last six meetings overall and 15 of 18.

Portland coach Terry Stotts can look to last year’s playoffs for some guidance, though he said Golden State’s defense is far better now.

“Both teams have a lot of the same players from last year, styles of play are similar,” Stotts said. “Obviously when you add Durant on to the team it adds another potent scorer who fits in well with how they play.”

THOMPSON’S TOUCH

Thompson picked up the slack with Curry sidelined last year against Portland, leading the Warriors in scoring in three of the five games – with 37 points, 27 and 33.

Now, Thompson isn’t afraid to say it: The Warriors plan to be playing for another two months.

“We want to redeem ourselves and we have a golden opportunity,” Thompson said. “It’s a new year. We’ve got to forget about last year whether we won or lost. It’s a new slate and we’re chasing that trophy. We want it back oh so badly.”

 

Bucks’ Khris Middleton, dealing with illness, misses practice

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — Bucks wing Khris Middleton missed practice with an illness that has been bothering the Bucks’ second-leading scorer (14.7 points) all week.

Middleton was 3 of 8 for eight points in 35 minutes in the 118-93 Game 5 loss in Toronto that gave the Raptors a 3-2 series lead. Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said he didn’t think the illness was a factor, and that Middleton had good looks and played well defensively. He expected Middleton to start on Thursday and said he wasn’t pondering any lineup changes for Game 6.

The Bucks got a day off from practice then returned to practice Wednesday after a brief break from what has been an increasingly rugged series.

After getting blown out in Game 3 by the Bucks, the Raptors won the next two games in part by being more physical and slowing down Milwaukee.

Sometimes, a young team needs to learn from failure to get better.

Kidd hopes his players build on the lessons learned from a stinker of a Game 5 in their opening-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors. They need to regroup quickly to avoid elimination when the Raptors and Bucks meet Thursday night at the Bradley Center.

“Yeah, I hope so,” Kidd said when asked about whether his players learned from the blowout loss. “Today, I thought guys were focused, understanding what we have to do. It’s not hard, but for us the process of being able to be consistent is the one thing that we struggle with.”

Workaholic forward Giannis Antetokounmpo might have been the only player who didn’t want a breather.

“I don’t know, for me, I didn’t need an off-day. But for sure some guys played a lot of minutes, their bodies are sore,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think for some guys it’s good to get some rest so we can bring more energy tomorrow.”

For all of his athleticism, the 22-year-old Antetokounmpo lacks playoff experience when compared to the postseason-tested Raptors.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton are playing in their second career playoff series after the Bucks lost in six games to top-seeded Chicago in 2015. Antetokounmpo’s role has changed now that he’s the focal point of the offense, so he faces more defensive scrutiny.

The team surrounding Antetokounmpo and Middleton has been almost completely made over since then, with injured forward Jabari Parker and center John Henson the only other holdovers. Henson has only played three minutes against Toronto.

Two other starters, guard Malcolm Brogdon and center Thon Maker, are rookies. Even center Greg Monroe, a seven-year veteran who provides scoring punch off the bench, is making his playoff debut. Fourth-year players Tony Snell (Bulls) and Matthew Dellavedova (Cavaliers) joined the Bucks this season, brought to Milwaukee in part because of their postseason experience.

In contrast, the Raptors have been through about every conceivable playoff situation after losing to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals last season. Led by one of the best backcourts in the game in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, Toronto is no stranger to adversity.

“You definitely see that experience come into play and we just understand the moment probably a little bit more than them. That’s not to take away (anything) from them,” DeRozan said. “They are a great team, a young team and this is definitely going to be an experience they will learn from and carry over but for now it’s something we have to keep in mind and understand the moment of going into every single game … to try and close this thing out.”

Milwaukee’s transition game is off track with 31 turnovers over the last two contests.

“That’s the physicality part, because it’s the playoffs, because it’s more intense. You get away with slaps, holds, grabs and that’s a trick of the trade,” said Jason Terry, a 17-year veteran who is averaging about 10 minutes a game off the bench for the Bucks this series.

“If you haven’t (been) through that, you don’t know it until you face it,” Terry said. “I think for us being a young team, now that we’ve seen it four or five games consecutively, hopefully now we can adjust.”

NOTES:

 

Jimmy Butler hits contested deep buzzer-beating 3-pointer (video)

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Shooting buzzer-beaters is especially difficult because the defender knows your deadline to release the shot. The threat of a pump fake, drive to another location or pass disappears as the seconds tick down.

On the other hand, Jimmy Butler is very good.

Wizards’ interior defense, transition buckets earns them 103-98 win, 3-2 series lead over Hawks

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It’s one of the core tenets of the NBA analytics movement that aligns well with old-school thinking — get your buckets from the places it’s easiest to score. The ones where teams shoot the highest percentage, where they are most efficient. Basically, shoot close to the basket or corner threes.

Feeling comfortable back home, Washington took those shots away from Atlanta Wednesday night — the Hawks shot 43.6 percent inside eight feet of the rim, were just 18-of-41 in the paint (43.9 percent) and were 0-of-6 on corner threes.

Combine that with 27 points from Bradley Beal, 20 points and 14 assists for John Wall, and some transition baskets (20 fast break points) and you get a 103-98 win for the Wizards. Washington now has a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 in Atlanta Friday night (if necessary, Game 7 would be Sunday).

Washington always seemed to be the better team in this one, but they could never get a comfortable lead — when Washington would get up double digits, the Hawks would close the gap again and hang around.

A lot of credit for that goes to point guard Dennis Schroder, who had 29 points on 10-of-18 shooting, and was 5-of-6 from three, to lead the Hawks. As it has been all series, the Wizards game plan with Schroder was to go under every pick and dare him to beat them with his jumper — and he almost did. Schroder also had 11 assists on the game.

While he played well and Paul Millsap was his usual impressive self inside (21 points, although on 8-of-19 shooting), the Hawks wings were a mess. Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, and Tim Hardaway Jr. combined to shoot 13-of-41 (31.7 percent) and they were 3-of-18 from three (Hardaway had all the makes).

Meanwhile, Beal had one of his best games of the playoffs, and he deserves some credit for the struggles of the Hawks’ wings.

“I think (Beal) is one of the best two-way players in the league,” Brooks said. “He’s not going to tell anyone he’s a great defender, but his coaching staff, his teammates know he locks up defensively.”

Washington also got some help from Otto Porter (17 points) and Bojan Bogdanovic off the bench with 14 points. Both of them made some clutch shots.

Scott Brooks threw some new wrinkles at the Hawks that worked for stretches — using Wall to double Millsap at times, or going for a stretch with Markieff Morris at the five. Morris still had foul trouble despite the help, the veteran Millsap knows how to get calls. Still, the tweaks worked well enough to get Washington some buckets, and the win.

The question becomes will the Wizards be able to do that on the road — the home team has won every game this series. If the Hawks’ wings feel more comfortable and hit some shots, if Atlanta can get some more easy points inside Friday night, we will be watching Game 7 of this series on Sunday.

No. 1 pick in WNBA draft LAUNCHES shirt deep into stands at Spurs-Grizzlies game (video)

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If the Cleveland Browns are still considering a quarterback with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft tomorrow, maybe they ought to take Kelsey Plum.

Plum, the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft, will play for the San Antonio Stars. First, she went to San Antonio for last night’s Spurs-Grizzlies Game 5 and showed off her arm by launching a shirt far into the crowd.

And she’s witty: